When you were young, which of these did you feel more often:
- No matter what I do, my parents love me.
- I can’t seem to please my parents, no matter what I do.
- My parents don’t really notice me.
The answers to such questions reveal more than about our childhood: they also tend to predict how we act in our closest relationships as adults.
Our childhood shapes our brain in many ways – and so determines our most basic ways of reacting to others — for better and for worse. If we felt well-loved in childhood, we tend to be secure in our relationships – but if not, then we’re more prone to chronic problems. When it comes to the engrained self-defeating habits that we bring to our adult relationships from childhood, understanding why we have these habits in the first place is a first step toward becoming free of their grip.
In Chapter Twelve of Social Intelligence I wrote about how the emotional patterns we first form with our parents survive into adulthood and influence how we behave as parents, lovers and spouses. My thinking relied heavily on the work of Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who has founded the field of “interpersonal neurobiology,” which explains the brain basis for our habits of bonding with others. His work has dramatic implications for how best to raise a child and for psychotherapy. In my book I was only able to explore Dr. Siegel’s work in brief. But I’m happy to have had the chance for an in-depth conversation with Daniel Siegel that was made into an audiotape. This dialogue let me delve into a range of topics that extend what I could write in Social Intelligence. Among them:
- How a person makes sense of what happened to him in his childhood (and not what actually happened) best predicts how he will treat his children. This is good news for parents who had miserable childhoods. On the other hand, failing to make sense of our unhelpful patterns means we will just go on repeating them.
- Consistent empathy from a parent – that is, tuning into the way a child views and feels about her world – has the optimal impact on the growth of that child’s neural circuitry for empathy and for a sense of security. But a parent who is dismissive of a child can leave an imprint that distances emotions.
- When we see how our habits of mind were shaped in childhood, it helps us free ourselves from their grip. If your parents did not tune in to your feelings or views, and you realize how this in turn shaped your habit of attuning (or not), that very insight can help you be different as a parent yourself.
- Self-awareness and self-management need to be in balance. Managing rocky emotions well does not mean suppressing them – better to be able to experience our feelings fully, while managing how we react to them.
- Our relationships as adults can “reparent” us: for example, if someone who was not given a secure base in childhood marries someone who was, that shaky person will gradually become more secure. We can become rewired to connect better.
- As Daniel Siegel says, “the interactions between a parent and child actually are neurally active ingredients in the wiring of the brain as it’s growing.” And this remains true in our major relationships throughout life.